World War 2 Engagements – Post WW2
The Liberation of the Netherlands
The events of the past have a direct impact on the world we know today. The warm relationship that exists between Canada and the Netherlands can be traced back to difficult days at the end of the Second World War when Canada played a key role in liberating the people of the Netherlands.
The Second World War influenced the lives of countless millions of people, including those who left home to fight in uniform and those who endured great suffering when the fighting took place in their homeland.
In Europe, country after country had fallen to the advances of Hitler’s Germany. By mid-1940, much of the west of the continent, including the Netherlands, was under German control. On June 6, 1944, the Allied forces embarked on the struggle to liberate ‘Fortress Europe’ from the west with the greatest combined military operation in history: D-Day. The Allies would soon advance north and east out of France, but the Netherlands, with its challenging terrain of canals, dykes and flood lands, coupled with the determined German occupiers, would prove to be a punishing place to battle.
The Battle of Scheldt
In the months following D-Day, the Allies needed a reliable way to keep supplies flowing to their forces on the European continent. To do this, they required a good seaport. The Belgian port of Antwerp was captured almost intact but it lay almost 80 kilometres from the sea and was accessible only by a long estuary whose shores were controlled by German forces. Much of this coastal area was Dutch and, in the fall of 1944, the First Canadian Army led the way in fierce combat under harsh conditions to clear the German occupiers from the shores of the Scheldt River and open the waterway to vital shipping. More than 6,000 Canadian soldiers were killed, wounded or captured in this grueling but victorious campaign that became a key step in the liberation of northwest Europe and the end of the war.
The Netherlands “The Hunger Winter”
In the fall of 1944, the Allies launched Operation Market-Garden, a daring land and airborne attack behind enemy lines in the eastern Netherlands. The goal was to bring the war to a rapid end by cutting in half the German positions in western Europe. The German resistance was fierce, however, and the bold offensive failed. It became apparent that the war would not end in 1944.
This would mean many more months of suffering for the Netherlands, which had already endured years of German occupation. The “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45 was a terrible time for the Dutch people. Food supplies were exhausted; many people were reduced to eating tulip bulbs just to try to survive. Fuel had run out and transportation was almost non-existent. By 1945, the official daily ration per person in the Netherlands was only 320 calories, about an eighth of the daily needs of an average adult. Thousands of Dutch men, women, and children perished of starvation and cold.
Canal by Canal, House by House
After three months of holding the front line in the Netherlands, the Canadians joined the final push to liberate the country. In February 1945, the First Canadian Army joined the Allies in a fierce push through mud and flooded ground to drive the Germans eastward out of the Netherlands and back across the Rhine.
In early April, the First Canadian Army began to clear the Germans from the northeast of the country. Often aided by information provided by Dutch resistance fighters, Canadian troops rapidly moved across the Netherlands, recapturing canals and farmland as they drove for the North Sea. Canadians also began to advance in the western Netherlands, which contained the major cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. British and Canadian forces cleared the city of Arnhem in just two days by fighting a house-by-house battle. Only days later, they cleared Apeldoorn.
Canadian forces were prepared to continue their push in the west of the country, however, there were concerns this would prompt the now-desperate Germans to breach all the dykes and flood the low-lying country. To ease the pressure, and allow for a truce in late April, the Canadian advance in the western Netherlands came to a temporary halt. This allowed relief supplies to reach Dutch citizens who had almost reached the end of their endurance. To show their appreciation to the Canadians who air-dropped food during this time, many Dutch people painted, “Thank you, Canadians!” on their rooftops.
Through the hard work, courage and great sacrifices of Canadian and other Allied soldiers, the remaining German forces in the country surrendered on May 5, 1945, finally liberating all of the Netherlands. All German forces would surrender May 7, 1945. The next day was declared Victory in Europe (V-E) Day.
A Joyous Welcome
The Dutch people cheered Canadian troops as one town after another was liberated. This was a memorable time for the people of the Netherlands. Recalled one Dutch civilian who was a teenager at the time of the Canadian liberation of The Hague: “As the (Canadian) tank came nearer…there was a big hush over all the people, and it was suddenly broken by a big scream, as if it was out of the earth. And the people climbed on the tank…and they were crying. And we were running with the tanks and the jeeps all the way into the city.”
The fighting in the Netherlands was often bitter but ultimately the Canadians were able to liberate the Dutch people and help bring the Second World War to an end in Europe. This victory, however, came at a terrible cost. More than 7,600 Canadians died in the efforts to free the country and are buried far from their homes and loved ones. Others returned home with injuries to body and mind that they carried for the rest of their lives.
The great bravery and sacrifice of Canadians were not the only help our country gave the Netherlands during the war. Some members of the Dutch royal family found sanctuary in Canada during the war and Princess Margriet was born in Ottawa in 1943. These powerful connections helped form warm bonds of friendship and respect between the Dutch and the Canadians which continue to this day. Evidence of this enduring connection may be seen in the tulips—gifts from the Netherlands—which bloom in Ottawa each spring and in the care and attention bestowed by the Dutch people on the burial places of our war dead. Even though the cost of lives was heavy and the sacrifice great, Canadians are proud to have been cast in the role of liberators.
Canadians in South-East Asia
Canadian involvement in “South East Asia during the Second World War consisted primarily of participation by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Although a few Canadians did serve in Royal Navy ships, no units of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) served in this area.
Two dozen Canadian Army officers were attached to the British 14th Army in Burma and South East Asia Command Headquarters as observers during the latter part of 1944. In addition, 18 Canloan officers—infantry subalterns borrowed by the British to make up the recurring loss of combat leaders—arrived on the scene in the summer of 1945.
About 40 Canadians, half of them primarily linguists of Chinese or Japanese descent, also served in Force 136, a British intelligence organization that operated behind Japanese lines. These men were involved in recruiting and training native guerrillas, engaging in sabotage, ambush and deception, and transmitting information about enemy activities. A number of Canadians served in a Combined Operations’ Sea Reconnaissance Unit (SRU) as the “frogmen of Burma,” spearheading 14th Army’s crossings of the Irrawaddy River in February and March 1945.
Perhaps the most unlikely Canadian unit represented in South East Asia was the Veteran’s Guard of Canada. In the summer of 1944, and again in the spring of 1945, contingents of the Veterans were employed as mule skinners, escorting shiploads of mules from the United States to India and eventually the jungles of Assam and the Arakan where they were much needed for transportation.
One Canadian, who had left British Columbia at the age of 21 to take up a regular commission in the British Army, deserves special mention. Charles Ferguson Hoey of the Lincolnshire Regiment won a Military Cross in Burma in 1943 and then a posthumous Victoria Cross on February 16, 1944 for his “outstanding gallantry and leadership” in taking a Japanese strong point.
Canadian airmen were in the South East Asia theatre even before the initial Japanese attacks of December 1941. When war broke out in 1939, few skills had been in greater demand among the Allied armed forces than those associated with radio operation and maintenance—skills which were valuable not only for their own sake, but which could be readily be applied to the new and still mysterious arts of Radio Detection Finding, or radar as it was subsequently called. By the end of 1940, Canada had added several hundred trained radiomen to the strength of the Royal Air Force (RAF). These men had been hurriedly enlisted in the RCAF and sent to England for courses which qualified them as radar operators and mechanics. A number of graduates in electrical engineering had also been commissioned and loaned to the RAF to command or administer the stream of radar and signals units that were constantly being formed.
Many of these radio personnel were then posted overseas, to the Middle or Far East. By December 1941, about 350 RCAF other ranks and 50 officers were serving in the RAF’s Far Eastern Command. A month later, at least 35 Canadian aircrew, early graduates of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, were also serving in RAF squadrons in South East Asia. By April 1942, this number had more than doubled as the British and Dutch were driven out of Malaya, Singapore, the Netherlands’ East Indies (now Indonesia), and much of Burma.
Some of the Canadians flew Consolidated Catalina flying-boats on maritime reconnaissance patrols, an occupation that soon had to be largely abandoned in face of Japanese air superiority. Most of the Catalinas were then diverted to night bombing operations. Some Canadian fighter pilots accompanied 50 Hawker Hurricanes from the Middle East which arrived in Singapore on January 13, 1942. The Hurricanes were expected to carry all before them but, although they could match the enemy’s speed and carried a heavier armament, they proved unable to turn with the Japanese in dogfights and were further handicapped by an inadequate ground control system. Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942, and two Canadian radar technicians were among the 70,000 Commonwealth troops taken prisoner there. Only 18 or 20 Hurricanes (plus 24 obsolete American fighters) were left to continue the battle from Sumatra and Java.
The Japanese attack on Sumatra began on February 14, 1942, with paratroop landings on the airfields at Palembang. Two Canadian pilots were captured while leading a makeshift force of RAF groundcrew, British Army anti-aircraft gunners and Dutch colonial infantry in hand-to-hand fighting against the invaders. By the time Java fell on March 8, 1942, an indeterminate number of Canadians had been wounded and 26 taken prisoner.
Over the Indian Ocean
The Allied front now stabilized along a great arc stretching from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan, along the Indo-Burmese border, through the Bay of Bengal to Ceylon, and then out across the Indian Ocean to Papua-New Guinea. The Japanese exercised air superiority along the whole of this arc. They also enjoyed a decisive naval superiority over the maritime portions of it. Recognizing this, British Admiral Sir James Sommerville handled his motley and mostly outdated fleet very cautiously and accepted that Ceylon, the key to the Indian Ocean, could best be defended by land based airpower.
A prime requirement for this was an adequate air reconnaissance capability to give early warning of any attack. Therefore, No. 413 Squadron, RCAF, which had been employed on convoy protection duties off the Scottish coast, was ordered to Ceylon—the first Canadian unit to appear in the South East Asia theatre. The first of No. 413’s Catalinas arrived at Koggala, on Ceylon’s south coast on March 28, 1942, and the second, piloted by Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, on April 2.
Two days later, Birchall and his crew took off for their first Far Eastern patrol. After a 12-hour flight, as they were returning to base, the spotted Japanese ships on the southern horizon. As they closed in trying to identify the types and numbers, they were attacked by Japanese carrier-borne fighter aircraft and forced to land on the ocean. The crew managed to get a signal through to alert the Ceylon defenses and give Admiral Sommerville time to get most of his ships out of the way.
As a result of these warnings when 91 Japanese bombers, escorted by 36 fighters attacked Columbo the next morning, they were met by 42 Hurricanes and Fairey Fulmars. At least eight of the British fighters were flown by Canadians, who claimed three victories between them. While the Japanese only lost seven machines altogether to the RAF’s 19, neither Columbo nor the fleet suffered much damage. Four days later, the naval base at Trincomalee was attacked and this time the air losses were more evenly balanced, the defenders losing 10 machines and accounting for nine of the enemy’s.
Meanwhile, the Canadian pilot, Squadron Leader L.J. Birchall, and his crew were being hailed as the saviours of Ceylon. Birchall was subsequently awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his “timely warning”. Although the enemy found and sank two cruisers and an aircraft-carrier, losses could have been much heavier had the fleet been caught unaware.
As the fear of invasion receded, No. 413 Squadron’s efforts were devoted largely to anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts, with the occasional long-range reconnaissance flight to the east. There were great serviceability problems and, in the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean, submarine densities were very low. Sightings were rare—only five genuine ones in nearly four years—and the Canadians had no success with their attacks. They won most of their accolades for reporting or rescuing survivors of sunken merchant ships in the course of flying some 11,000 operational hours. Finally, in November 1944, the RCAF requested that the squadron be returned to the United Kingdom for conversion to a bomber unit. Two months later, all personnel embarked for England, leaving their aircraft and equipment in Ceylon.
The Defense of India 1942-44
Meanwhile, along the 1,125 kilometre Indo-Burmese border, both British and Japanese forces had been stalemated by the onset of the monsoon season in mid-May 1942. When the weather finally eased in mid-October, the Japanese began an air offensive against the Assam bases of the USAAF’s airlift to China, over the Himalayan hump. They were met by Hurricanes of the RCAF’s No. 224 Group, which included 30 Canadian pilots. At the same time, light bombers of No.
221 Group, with at least 60 Canadian officers and aircrew on strength, endeavoured to cut enemy supply lines running north from Rangoon. The total number of aircraft involved was still small and equipment was relatively primitive given the size of the theatre of operations. As a result, nothing decisive was achieved by either side. The issue of air superiority was seldom contested, since neither combatant could bring significant forces to bear.
The RCAF component in the theatre continued to grow. By the end of 1942, there were at least 1,100 Canadians in India and Ceylon although the exact number was not known as there was no coordinating Canadian authority. An RCAF District Headquarters was subsequently authorized in May 1943 and became operational in October. By June 1945, a staff of 191 officers and men were administering a Canadian contingent more than 3,000 strong.
When the British ground forces first turned to the offensive, their effort took the form of a long-range penetration raid into northern Burma by Brigadier Orde Wingate’s Chindits between February and June 1943. Wingate’s men were supplied by airdrops from Douglas Dakotas of No. 31 Squadron, RAF, with at least seven Canadians in its aircrew ranks. While many of the Chindits were killed or captured, the concept of long-range penetration was judged a success. The technique was expanded in 1944 to include the establishment of semi-permanent strongholds, which incorporated air landing strips, behind the Japanese lines. By this time, the Chindit force was three brigades strong and included 13 Canadians as Air Liaison Officers, with an RCAF radio mechanic in charge of radio communication from one of the strongholds.
Canadians were now playing a small but significant part in nearly every air activity in South East Asia. By 1943, air operations had improved as more up-to-date aircraft, better equipment and maintenance, and increased experience, enabled the Allied air forces to fly more regularly and maintain a greater intensity of effort, despite the monsoon weather.
Logistics posed one of the greatest problems to the prospect of an Allied counter-offensive to recover Burma. There was no through railway from Calcutta, the main supply base for 14th Army, into the battle zone. The one overloaded rail line that ran to Dimapur and then swung north to Ledo was broken by a ferry over the Brahmaputra River. This river ran across all lines of communication with the rear areas and was not bridged at any point along its length. During the five monsoon months of the year, 500 cm of rain fell, turning formerly placid rivers and streams into raging torrents.
The front line, such as it was, meandered through steep, jungle-covered hills, with no roads. Mule trains and backpacks were often the only way to bring in supplies. If the 14th Army was to go over to the attack, most food, fuel and ammunition would have to be delivered by air. This would require total air superiority and a substantial force of transport aircraft.
The Advancement of Rangoon
During the dry season of 1943-44, the Allies finally attained air superiority in this area. At that time, several hundred bombers and fighters (with several hundred Canadians in their crews) were harassing the Japanese, whose strength was down to about 150 machines of all kinds. Some 300 Allied transport aircraft were also in the theatre although General Sir William Slim wanted more before he launched his advance on Rangoon. The RCAF subsequently agreed to bolster his air transportation capability by forming two medium-range transport squadrons in India.
As a result of bringing together Canadian aircrew already in the theatre, and bringing more from Canada and the United Kingdom, 76 complete aircrews were undergoing operational training in Dakotas by the end of September 1944. In addition, 580 Canadian ground crew and administrative personnel were flown out from England. On November 19, the 14th Army began to cross the Chindwin River on its epic march south. On December 20, 1944, and January 16, 1945, RCAF Squadrons Nos. 435 and 436 flew their first operational missions.
Cargo was either air-dropped, or landed on short, rough airstrips hacked out of the jungle, many of them situated in winding valleys and requiring extremely steep approaches and takeoffs. At least once, the unarmed Canadians had to rely on ultra low-level maneuvers to escape Japanese fighters in the area. Two aircraft were lost and six crewmen killed in these transport operations.
By the end of February 1945, 14 Allied transport squadrons were operational—four British (including 225 Canadian aircrew), two Canadian and eight American—carrying 90% of the supplies required by 300,000 men. Other Canadians were flying in ground support squadrons. When the Japanese committed some of their scarce armour against a bridgehead over the Irrawaddy River south of Mandalay, Hurricane “tank-busters” of No. 20 Squadron, RAF, destroyed 12 of them.
Consolidated Liberators of No. 222 Group, RAF, (with 372 Canadian aircrew on strength in March 1945), were also busy limiting the movement of Japanese shipping in a series of long-range bombing and mine-laying operations that took them as far afield as Sumatra. The longest sortie undertaken by a Liberator in South East Asia during the war lasted 24 hours and 10 minutes. It was flown from Ceylon on July 31, 1945, by a largely Canadian crew of No. 160 Squadron to drop supplies to guerrilla forces in southern Malaya.
Rangoon, Burma fell on May 3. The Allied forces in South East Asia were preparing an assault on Malaya when the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a second bomb on Nagasaki brought about the Japanese surrender.
The two RCAF squadrons left Burma in early September, having averaged more flying hours than the established intensive rate for transport aircraft use. The more than 1,000 RCAF officers and aircrew serving in British squadrons in May 1945, as well as another 700 serving in various headquarters, radio and radar units, maintenance units and bases, had begun to be repatriated in June, although the last Canadian aircrew were not posted out until October. Members of the District Headquarters left the theatre on January 15, 1946, the last Canadians to leave.
There are 199 Canadian names inscribed on the Singapore Memorial to commemorate those who have no known grave and three Canadians are buried in the Kranji War Cemetery in Singapore. In addition, 56 Canadian war dead are buried in Burma and one Canadian name is inscribed on the Rangoon Memorial.
Out of an estimated 8,000 Canadians who served in South East Asia, a total of 454 were either killed in action or died of disease.
The Defense of Hong Kong
During the Second World War, most of our country’s overseas military effort took place in Europe—Canadians also fought bravely elsewhere. Canadian soldiers went to help form a defense force in Hong Kong in 1941, just in time for the outbreak of war in the Pacific.
By late 1941, the war in Europe had been going on for more than two years. In the Far East, the Japanese were fighting in China—in this part of the world, the real war for the Allies had yet to begin. This changed as the political situation grew more strained between Japan, on the one hand, and the United States and Britain on the other. It became clear that the British Crown colony of Hong Kong was vulnerable and had to be protected. Britain decided to reinforce the colony with more troops in the hope this would deter Japan from attacking or at least delay any Japanese advances. Canada was asked to contribute to this effort.
The Canadians Arrive
Canada selected the Royal Rifles and the Winnipeg Grenadiers to help defend Hong Kong. In late October 1941, 1,975 Canadian soldiers set sail for the Far East from Vancouver on board the Awatea, escorted by HMCS Prince Robert.
The Canadians arrived in Hong Kong on November 16. They joined the 14,000-strong Hong Kong defense force, made up of troops from Britain, India, Singapore and Hong Kong. Although sent to a part of the world still at peace, they quickly began training and prepared for active defense of the colony under the command of Brigadier J.K. Lawson. Only three weeks would go by before they would find themselves in combat.
The Defense of Hong Kong
On the morning of December 8, Japan attacked Hong Kong. Japanese warplanes pounded the airport and their ground forces poured across the frontier from China and into the mainland portion of the colony. Demonstrating an unexpected skill at night fighting, the Japanese kept advancing. After three days of combat, the defenders had been pushed from the mainland and back to Hong Kong. It was during this time that Canadian soldiers from D Company of the Winnipeg Grenadiers engaged the enemy, becoming the first Canadian Army unit to fight in the Second World War.
On December 13, and again on the 17th, the Japanese demanded the defenders’ surrender only to be quickly rejected. During this time, the Canadians and other defending troops prepared for the inevitable Japanese assault on Hong Kong. On December 18, the Japanese crossed from the mainland in the darkness and invaded the island. The Allied defense positions quickly became overwhelmed and had to draw back into the mountains to the south.
Over the coming days and nights of heavy fighting, the Allies offered brave resistance and took part in many counter-attacks. However, the Japanese were able to maintain the offensive due to their greater numbers, battle experience, access to reinforcements and armaments, and total air domination. By contrast, Canadians and other Allies were relatively inexperienced, exhausted from continual battle and bombardment, and had no hope of receiving additional supplies or reinforcement. The Canadians suffered many casualties, including the death of Brigadier Lawson. It was during this fighting that Company Sergeant-Major John Robert Osborn of the Winnipeg Grenadiers won the Victoria Cross, the highest award for military valour a Canadian can win. Despite fighting to the end, by Christmas Day 1941, the battered Allies had no choice but to surrender.
Prisoners of War
The Canadians in Hong Kong had held out with heavy losses against impossible odds for more than 17 days before laying down their weapons. However, the ordeal for the surviving Canadians was far from over. They would become prisoners of war (POWs) for more than three-and-a-half years, first in Hong Kong until early 1943, and then in Japan until their liberation in September 1945.
In the prison camps, Canadian POWs became weak and malnourished from a starvation diet made up of a bit of rice, and some occasional greens and scraps of meat or fish. They lived in primitive, vermin-infested huts, that were often cold and damp in the winter. They were forced to work long and hard at slave labour in construction projects, shipyards and mines. The POWs endured great abuse and mistreatment by their guards. They were wracked by diseases like diphtheria and beriberi. Many died from these plagues, as the Japanese rarely supplied them with any medicine. More than 260 Canadian POWs died before they could be liberated. Those who survived left the labour camps gaunt, their rail-thin bodies demonstrating just how harsh their experiences had been.
The defense of Hong Kong was a brutal chapter in Canada’s military history. Of the almost 2,000 Canadians who sailed to Hong Kong in late 1941, more than 550 would never see Canada again. Many would die in the fierce combat of December 1941. Others would perish in the grinding conditions of the Japanese prison camps throughout the rest of the war. Many of those who did survive would return home with their health broken and their lives shortened by their experiences, forever shaken by their experiences and the extreme hardships they endured.
As the Canadians who fought in the defense of Hong Kong demonstrated so clearly, the men and women of our country have often put themselves in harm’s way, even offering their lives, in the worldwide quest for peace, freedom and the preservation of human values. The experiences of the Canadians in Hong Kong serve as a lasting reminder of the high price of war and the incredible effort and sacrifice that Canadians and the Allies would put forth to eventually triumph in the Second World War. Canada and the world recognize the great effort and sacrifices made by these brave Canadians, an effort that lives on in our hearts and minds.
The Burma Campaign
The Second World War was a worldwide conflict and Canadians served around the globe. One of the lesser known areas where Canadians made a contribution was in the Asian countries of India and Burma. Approximately 8,000 Canadians served in this area during what became known as the Burma Campaign.
Canadians on the Ground
The Canadian Army’s best-known effort in Asia during the war was the defense of Hong Kong. Canadian soldiers, however, were present in different areas of the region as the fighting progressed. The British 14th Army in India and Burma was under the command of General William Slim and some Canadians served in its British and Indian units with infantry and armoured regiments. A number of medical officers served with the India Medical Service as well.
Of the individual Canadians who served with the British Army in Southeast Asia, the achievements of Major Charles Hoey stand out. He grew up in British Columbia before going to Great Britain to enlist in the British Army in 1933. Major Hoey earned a Victoria Cross (the highest award for military valour) in Burma for his heroic leadership in the clearing of an enemy strong point in February 1944. Despite serious wounds, he continued with the attack and single-handedly eliminated a Japanese machine-gun position which was preventing his troops from advancing. Sadly, Hoey died during this effort.
Canadians were also involved in other special groups in the region, such as the “Sea Reconnaissance Unit,” a group of frogmen (military divers) who spearheaded the British Army’s assaults across the rivers of Burma. Canadian Lieutenant-Commander B.S. Wright led the unit and another Canadian, Flight Lieutenant G.H. Avery, earned the first Military Cross ever awarded to a frogman for bravery in combat. Avery received this honour for his efforts during the assault that crossed Burma’s Irrawaddy River in February and March 1945.
One of the most unusual Canadian contributions was their role as “mule skinners,” escorting shiploads of mules from North America to the jungles of eastern India and western Burma. The mules were much needed by the Allied forces fighting there to help transport supplies across the mountainous terrain. In all, about 180 Canadians (many of them members of the Veterans’ Guard of Canada) made the long journey, escorting approximately 1,600 mules.
Canadians in the Air
Most Canadians who served in Asia during the Second World War were members of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) or the Royal Air Force (RAF). Their duties were varied and dangerous. The Japanese, while having lost their air superiority as the war progressed, were definitely still a threat. Being shot down over the dense jungle made survival difficult. Allied air efforts were often undertaken even during the five monsoon months of the year that occur in that part of Asia—a wet season that gets as much as five metres of rain. In addition, landing and taking-off on the primitive airstrips was difficult. This sometimes resulted in ground-looping (having the aircraft’s tail section quickly swing around), which often damaged the aircraft and resulted in a black mark in the pilot’s log book.
Over the Indian Ocean
Nos. 413, 435 and 436 RCAF Squadrons saw service in South and Southeast Asia during the war. No. 413 Squadron was posted to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) on March 28, 1942, and took up reconnaissance, convoy-protection and antisubmarine warfare duties over the Indian Ocean. This was the first Canadian unit assigned to this theatre of action. They flew Catalina (or “Canso”) flying boats—large amphibious planes that could take off and land on the water. This force had an immediate and decisive role in defending Ceylon against a Japanese attack. Just days after arriving in the region, Canadian Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall and his crew were 600 kilometres south of Ceylon when they spotted Japanese ships. They were attacked and shot down, but not before they had radioed a warning back to base. This alert helped the Allies successfully defend the island from a surprise attack. Birchall was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Sir Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, dubbed him “the Saviour of Ceylon.”
These flying boats spent countless hours over the Indian Ocean on exhausting anti-submarine patrols and search-and-rescue missions during the war. With the ocean so vast and the number of enemy submarines relatively few, submarine sightings were very rare but many sailors whose ships had been attacked and sunk owed their lives to the Canadian aircraft which would find the men and circle over them until they could be rescued.
In 1944, the Allies began the campaign to push the occupying Japanese out of eastern India and Burma. This was not an easy task as much of the region was mountainous and covered with jungle. With no roads existing in the area to transport supplies, British General Sir William Slim had to find another way to keep the Allied forces supplied; his solution was to supply an entire army from the air.
The RCAF helped meet this vital need with Nos. 435 and 436 Squadrons, two medium-range transport squadrons based in India which flew their first operational missions in December 1944 and January 1945. The squadrons were comprised of C47 Dakota transport aircraft (the military version of the Douglas DC 3). The “Dak,” as it was affectionately called, was tough, reliable, extremely stable and able to take considerable punishment from ground fire. It was also designed for maximum crew safety in the event of a crash.
These planes were usually employed to fly from bases in India and Burma to drop supplies by parachute into small clearings where the materials could be collected by the Allied forces fighting in the area. Later, the planes would land on primitive airstrips built by military engineers. Operating in this kind of terrain often meant steep descents and approaches. Sometimes the planes’ ground crews would go along to act as “kickers” helping to push the supplies out the side doors.
The men of Nos. 435 and 436 RCAF Squadrons endured considerable hardships. They also had to work out of airbases with deplorable living conditions. Even their tools were inadequate; they used flashlights and coins to remove cowlings and, with make-shift tools like these, accomplished the impossible and kept the planes flying.
By the end of February 1945, 14 Allied transport squadrons were operational in the air supply effort—four British squadrons (including 225 Canadian aircrew), two Canadian squadrons (consisting of about 300 aircrew and 600 ground crew each) and eight American squadrons—carrying 90 percent of the supplies required by 300,000 men.
The Canadian squadrons worked tirelessly until they returned to Britain in the fall of 1945. No. 435 Squadron flew nearly 30,000 operational hours and delivered more than 27,000 tons of cargo and approximately 15,000 passengers and wounded. Meanwhile, No. 436 Squadron flew almost 32,000 operational hours and delivered almost 29,000 tons of cargo and more than 12,500 passengers and wounded.
The Burma Bombers
The RAF found that the American B-24 Liberator was an effective long-range aircraft in the Far East, and soon had several squadrons of the huge planes operating on bombing, long-range patrol and supply missions. Many men in these units came from the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan’s No. 5 Operational Training Unit in British Columbia and many of the aircrew on these planes were Canadian. To this day, these Veterans refer to themselves as the “Burma Bombers.”
The missions these men flew were varied; the bombers flew on solo and group missions, both by day and by night. The Liberators were often filled with tons of bombs and had crews of up to 11 men. They attacked such targets as railways, ships, bridges and enemy troop concentrations. They flew against enemy targets in Rangoon, the capital of Burma – a city heavily defended by the Japanese occupiers with flak and fighter planes. They operated from a number of airfields in places like India, Ceylon, and the Cocos Islands in the Indian Ocean. The Japanese kept fighting until the end and therefore the Burma Bombers faced danger until the final days of the war.
The men who flew on these missions faced many challenges, and the lengthy duration of the sorties was often a considerable hurdle. Sometimes these planes would have to carry two sets of flight crew because the flights were longer than one crew could safely manage. Liberators of No. 222 Group, RAF, (with 372 Canadian aircrew on strength in March 1945) undertook a series of long-range bombing and mine-laying operations that took them as far afield as Sumatra, Indonesia, in an effort to supply Allied forces and disrupt Japanese shipping.
Fighter and Fighter-Bomber Squadrons
Canadians also served in other capacities in the skies over Asia. Some of the most dangerous roles were those of the fighter pilots who defended against enemy air attack and pursued Japanese targets. Canadians piloted Hawker Hurricanes and Supermarine Spitfires, Thunderbolts, Beaufighters, Mohawks and other fighter planes in combat missions over Burma, eastern India and other areas of the region. Canadian airmen shot down Japanese bombers and fighter planes, as well as undertook reconnaissance duties and pinpoint bombing and strafing efforts on such enemy targets as trains, pipelines, roads, ships and airfields. Often the demanding low-level flight, harsh terrain and unpredictable weather took as great a toll on the men as did the enemy. As well, downed pilots could often expect no mercy if they were captured, creating an extra level of tension.
In the pivotal Battle of Kohima, fighter squadrons and Hawker Hurricane fighter-bomber squadrons with their 20 mm cannons and 115 kilogram bombs were used to strike at enemy strong points and heavy concentrations of enemy troops who were threatening to overrun Allied positions. During the fighting, the notorious monsoon rains began to fall which made the movement of men and equipment even more difficult. Fighter squadrons had to be moved to less convenient locations in order to prevent aircraft and personnel from being bogged down in the mud. While the dangers faced by these airmen were different than those faced by the troops on the ground, it was still extremely difficult. The critical nature of the battle meant that pilots had to fly in weather that, in normal times, would have kept the planes grounded. Due to the perseverance of the Allied forces, the Japanese Army was defeated and a full-scale invasion of India was averted.
Fighter squadrons were also active along the Arakon coast in the western part of Burma in support of 15th Corps of the 14th Army. Most sorties involved close army support and were very challenging because of the dense tree cover that made targets difficult to see, coupled with the Japanese’s skills in camouflaging their supply lines with tree branches. Searching out and destroying hidden enemy targets often involved flying less than 10 metres above the jungle treetops.
Supporting the “Chindits”
The “Chindits” were members of the 77th Indian Infantry Brigade and part of the largest Special Services operation of the war. This unit’s unique nickname was derived from the word for the mythical Burmese beasts that guarded the Buddhist temples in the country. Largely composed of British Indian infantry troops who undertook long-range operations behind enemy lines in Japanese-occupied Burma, a number of Canadians were involved with the Chindits as the aircrew of some planes supplying the force, air force liaison officers, and radio communications personnel. One of the Chindits’ boldest initiatives consisted of opening up primitive but semi-permanent Allied air bases behind enemy lines in the jungles of occupied Burma. The troops and supplies transported into these bases helped the Allies disrupt Japanese activities in Burma.
Canadian Radar Operators
A very important, but little known, Canadian contribution to the Allied effort during the Second World War centered on radar. At the outbreak of the war, radar was still a new technology but it would play a vital role as the distant detection of aircraft and ships now became possible. Finding qualified radar operators was a challenge and the British had an urgent need for skilled personnel. They turned to Canada which had good electronics training programs in place and many Canadians with expertise in the field joined the RAF and served all over the world. Some of these Canadian radar operators were stationed in Asia even before the Japanese and Allies began fighting in December 1941.
These radar personnel served with fighter squadrons, transport squadrons, maintenance units and both fixed and mobile ground-based stations. It is estimated that more than 700 Canadian radar personnel served in South and Southeast Asia by the end of the war, operating and maintaining their radar equipment in places like Burma, India, Singapore, Ceylon and China.
An Unexpected End
As the war in Europe neared an end in early 1945, Allied planning focused more fully on defeating the Japanese in the East. As the tide turned against Japan, they were pushed from Burma by the summer of 1945. However, the Japanese showed no sign of giving up, despite the fact that the Allies had almost complete control of the sea and air. It was thought that the only way to bring the war in Asia to an end was to invade the Japanese home islands and force a total surrender.
Ambitious plans had been made for Canada’s expected role in the Allied push to defeat Japan. As it turned out, they never had to be carried out with the American dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan, forcing them to surrender unconditionally on August 15, 1945. This day was called V-J (Victory in Japan) Day and finally marked the end to almost six long years of war.
The challenges faced by Canadians who served in Burma were varied, but all had to deal with harsh terrain, great heat and humidity, unfamiliar cultures, threat of enemy attack and dangerous tropical diseases and wildlife very different from anything they ever had to deal with back home.
The lasting impact of the Burma Campaign on Canadians still echoes. One Canadian Dakota disappeared on a mission in the final days of the war. No proof of what had happened would emerge until some 50 years later when a hunter came upon the wreckage in a remote area. Personnel from Veterans Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defense went to Burma and recovered the air men’s remains. The men were laid to a final rest in a special ceremony in Rangoon in 1997.
The efforts of the Canadians who served in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War were impressive but came at a great cost. Exact numbers are hard to come by as the Canadians who served with the RAF were usually included with the rest of the British forces and no separate records were kept. However, of the estimated 8,000 Canadians who served in the region, approximately 500 men died and many others were wounded or captured. The difficult experiences of the Veterans of the war in Asia would take a high physical and emotional toll—a toll that, for many, lasted a lifetime.
In the Naga Hills of eastern India, north of the border with Burma, is the famous Kohima Memorial, which marks the place where Allied forces turned back a Japanese invasion of India in 1944. While the Commonwealth soldiers who fell here did not include any members of the Canadian military, Canadian airmen were involved in the fierce fighting. At the base of the monument are the words of John Maxwell Edmonds, a British poet who originally wrote the lines to commemorate the men who died in the First World War—an epitaph that also poignantly summarizes the contributions of the Canadians who died in the cause of peace and freedom over the years:
“When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.”
The Canadians who served in the Burma Campaign were among the more than one million men and women from Canada who served during the Second World War. The efforts of all these Canadians helped to ensure that victory was achieved. The sacrifices and achievements of those who gave so much to restore peace and freedom to the world cannot be forgotten.
The Canadian participation in this theatre of war had another, more unexpected result as well. The contact of men from other Allied forces with these Canadians was often the catalyst that would eventually see them emigrate to our country after the war. These men would be welcomed warmly by the Canadian Veteran community and close bonds were created that endure to this day.
Canada Remembers the Korean War
A New Threat to World Peace
The year is 1950. The Second World War is over. The United Nations (UN) has been in place for just five years, and is working to promote global peace and security. Canada is brimming with optimism as Canadians look forward to a prosperous and peaceful second half of the 20th century. Suddenly, an international crisis is brewing in the Korean peninsula and people, the world over, are holding their collective breath. What happens next is history.
Setting the Siege
At the end of the Second World War, Japan’s empire was dismantled and the Soviet Union, seeking to gain influence in the region, occupied North Korea while the Americans moved into South Korea. The Soviets and the Americans eventually left, but not until a communist government had been established in the North and a democratic government in the South. Tensions between the two Koreas grew to a climax and, on June 25, 1950, the military forces of North Korea crossed the 38th Parallel into South Korea. This marked the beginning of hostilities which were to rage on for more than three years, throughout the country known to its people as the Land of the Morning Calm.
Reaction of the West
The UN, created to resolve conflict between member nations primarily through dialogue and negotiation, also had the flexibility to use force in the pursuit of peace. The situation in Korea would require armed intervention, and 16 member nations, including Canada, would contribute military forces under United States command.
Initial advances of North Korean troops reached Seoul, the capital of South Korea, but a September 1950 UN sea landing at Seoul’s port of Inchon forced the North Koreans to retreat. Seoul was re-captured by UN Forces, which then crossed the 38th Parallel, moving toward the Chinese border. Chinese forces intervened with a massive offensive that drove the UN and South Korean Armies back across the 38th Parallel to southern positions along the Imjin River.
In mid-February 1951, units from Canada, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India joined to form one Commonwealth Force, as part of a north-eastern advance toward the 38th Parallel. Korea, a rugged country with hills, swamps and rice fields, also has periods of severe seasonal weather which hampered combat operations. By the end of March, Canadian troops were in the Kapyong Valley and in mid-April UN Forces were again north of the 38th Parallel.
Western politicians debated invading China at the risk of expanding the war, but decided against such action and in late April 1951, with new troops and equipment, Chinese and North Korean forces struck in the western and west-central sectors. The aggressive Chinese advance forced US troops in the area to move back or risk being overrun by the enemy. Canadian and other Commonwealth troops entered the battle in the Kapyong Valley and helped the Americans retreat to safety. The Canadians were awarded a US Presidential Citation for this gallant action.
Early in July 1951, ceasefire negotiations began. However, there would be two more years of fighting until the signing of the Armistice at Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. The uneasy truce which followed left Korea a divided country, yet the first UN intervention in history effectively stopped the aggression, and the UN emerged from the crisis with enhanced prestige.
As with the two world wars that preceded Korea, Canadians volunteered for military service far from home. More than 26,000 Canadians served in the Korean War, including sailors from eight destroyers and airmen who took part in many combat and transport missions. Canada’s military contribution was larger, in proportion to its population, than most other UN participants.
Canada, as a nation, owes an everlasting debt of gratitude to those young men and women who, in the prime of their youth, have served and continue to serve their country to preserve global peace and protect fundamental human rights. Many made the ultimate sacrifice, and lie buried in countries far from their homes and loved ones. Many have returned from service with injuries to body and mind that they must carry with them for the rest of their lives. The names of 516 Canadians who died in service during the conflict are inscribed in the Books of Remembrance located in the Peace Tower in Ottawa.
The collective experiences and stories of Canada’s Veterans provide Canadians with a proud and lasting legacy that will continue into the country’s future. Remembering and reflecting on the significance of the contribution they made, and continue to make, strengthens the commitment to preserve the values for which they fought.
The Korean War marked a new stage in Canada’s development as a nation. Since the end of the war, Canada has contributed to many military operations around the world in an effort to promote international freedom and maintain world peace.
The Korean War Erupts
The Cold War was the tense struggle for dominance in international affairs between the forces of communism and democracy that arose in the aftermath of the Second World War. One of the places this played out was in the Korean Peninsula in East Asia where, after the occupying Japanese had been defeated, a communist regime was established in the North while a democratic government was established in the South. On June 25, 1950, after years of rising tensions, North Korean forces poured over the border at the 38th parallel into South Korea. This invasion touched off more than three years of fighting in the place traditionally known as the Land of the Morning Calm. The United Nations (UN) responded to this aggression with a call to its members to form a multinational force under the command of the United States to restore the peace, and Canada agreed to help.
Canadians would serve at sea, in the air and on the ground during the Korean War. The early stages of the conflict saw major swings in momentum. When the first Canadians soldiers—members of the 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (2 PPCLI)—set sail across the Pacific on November 25, 1950, the war looked to be nearing its end as the communist forces had been pushed back almost to the Chinese border. By the time the Canadians’ ship reached its destination, however, the situation had completely changed as China had intervened in support of North Korea and had launched a major offensive that retook much of the lost territory. The 2 PPCLI joined the action in mid-February 1951 under the command of the 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade that was taking part in the UN advance pushing the enemy once again back across the 38th parallel.
The Battle of Kapyong
In late April 1951, the retreating Chinese and North Korean forces regrouped and counter-attacked in the western and west-central sectors of the front. The South Korean forces in one area were overwhelmed and hurriedly fell back, putting them in danger of being overrun and wiped out. The 27th British Commonwealth Infantry Brigade—along with its Canadian contingent— was called up from reserve to the Kapyong Valley to cover this desperate retreat.
Less than three kilometres across at its widest point, the Kapyong Valley was dominated by the surrounding hills. A defensive position was quickly established with the 3rd Royal Australian Regiment on Hill 504, the 2 PPCLI on Hill 677, and the 1st Middlesex Regiment (a British unit) situated south of the Canadians.
During the night of April 23, the Australians came under heavy attack, holding out until the next day before being forced to withdraw. Their retreat left the Canadians exposed and, at 10:00 p.m. on April 24, the communist assaults began.
It was a wild battle and some of our positions were overrun; at one point the Canadians even called in an artillery strike on their own location to hit the enemy soldiers among them. The Canadians took cover while the attackers bore the brunt of the fire. The risky move worked and the enemy was driven off. The danger was not yet over and the morning of the 25th saw an intermittent exchange of fire. Canadian Veteran Gerald Gowing was there:
“We were surrounded on the hills of Kapyong and there was a lot of fire. We were pretty well out of ammunition and out of food too. We did get some air supplies dropped in, but we were actually surrounded.”
The enemy was soon cleared from one side of the Canadians, however, and a supply line was re-established. Our soldiers had done it, holding out in the face of a much larger force while inflicting heavy casualties on the enemy and helping the Commonwealth brigade maintain its position. By May 1st, the larger communist offensive had come to a halt.
The Korean War soon moved into a new phase as truce negotiations began in July 1951 and the front lines began to stabilize. For the Commonwealth contingent, the remainder of the conflict became largely a “war of patrols,” with few large-scale battles taking place. On July 27, 1953, an armistice finally ended the active fighting.
Holding the line at Kapyong was an impressive achievement, but came at a cost. Ten Canadians were killed and 23 were wounded, a total that could be considered relatively light in view of the fierce fighting there and a testament to the skill and organization of the defenders. Our fallen soldiers at Kapyong were among the 516 Canadians who died in service during the Korean War.
The Battle of Kapyong was an important episode in the Korean War. The soldiers of the 2nd Battalion of Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry persevered in the face of great adversity to help prevent a potentially costly defeat for the South Korean and UN forces. Their heroic efforts did not go unnoticed with the Americans awarding them the United States Presidential Unit Citation—a very rare honour for a Canadian unit.
Canadians and Hill 355
When the UN called on its members in the summer of 1950 to form a multinational force to help restore peace, Canada agreed to help. The early stages of the war saw the combat push up and down the Korean peninsula as each side took turns undertaking major offensives. However by mid-1951 the lines began to solidify and the two sides dug in with deep defensive positions around the 38th parallel.
The Canadians guarded their sectors of the front lines and conducted raids on enemy positions to gather intelligence and capture prisoners. During this period they were often deployed on or near Hill 355 (so named on military maps because it was 355 metres above sea level). In fact, every Canadian battalion that served in Korea would spend time there at some point during the war. Known as “Kowang San” to the Koreans, it was nicknamed ”Little Gibraltar” by UN troops because of its prominent size and many defensive positions. The hill was located about 40 kilometres north of Seoul and was highly valued because it was the highest ground overlooking the surrounding front lines and supply routes. This strategic importance meant it would be the scene of fierce combat as both sides wanted to have it
On November 22, 1951, Canadian troops from the Royal Canadian Regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal 22e Régiment (nicknamed the “Van Doos”) were shifted to a new stretch of the front lines almost seven kilometres long that bordered on the American-held Hill 355. The Van Doos were just getting settled in their positions under the shadows of Hill 227 and Hill 355 when the Chinese began an intense bombardment.
Shelling would continue into the following day, followed by waves of Chinese soldiers storming the Van Doos the afternoon of November 23. Our men found themselves surrounded before shelling and mortar fire drove the enemy back. Nearby, the Americans and Chinese struggled for control of Hill 355 itself. The Americans were pushed off for a time, leaving the Canadians exposed to even more fire from the enemy-held summit overlooking our defensive positions. It was desperate fighting in the snow, cold and mud that left the Van Doos with 16 killed, 44 wounded and three taken prisoner, but they held their ground until the Americans retook Hill 355 for good on November 25 and the communist attacks came to an end.
Canadians would again find themselves in heavy combat in the area of Hill 355 in October 1952. The Royal Canadian Regiment had been stationed on the hill since early September and enemy forces had periodically bombarded our positions throughout October, leaving the defenses badly damaged and weakened. The Chinese were clearly preparing for an attack and it finally came in the early evening of October 23. The enemy put down another heavy artillery barrage, then sent their soldiers forward in a large raid on our men’s positions.
Under heavy assault and with communications cut off, some of the Canadians were forced to abandon their defensive positions to the surging enemy. UN force tank and mortar fire was turned to the captured areas, however, as well as on Hill 227, the area west of Hill 355 and the valley to the north. The Chinese withdrew and the Canadians succeeded in reoccupying the position in the early hours of October 24. This action had again taken a heavy toll, however, with 18 Canadians being killed, 35 wounded and 14 men taken prisoner.
Canadian soldiers served with skill and bravery at Hill 355 during the Korean War. In addition to the sharp combat they saw, they would also guard the lines there for long periods during quieter periods on the front. Their efforts, however, took a high toll. In fact, more Canadians became casualties in battles and in patrols along this sector’s front lines than anywhere else in Korea. Our fallen soldiers at Hill 355 were among the 516 Canadians who died in service during the Korean War and whose names are written in the Books of Remembrance located within the Memorial Chamber in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
On July 27, 1953, an armistice was signed that finally ended the active fighting in Korea. Our soldiers’ sacrifices and achievements in the area of Hill 355 would be a significant chapter in Canada’s Korean War history. In a conflict some would come to call “the forgotten war,” Canadians would add to the proud national tradition of military service in the cause of peace and freedom that our country has demonstrated time and again in conflicts and peace support efforts over the years.
The Canadian Armed Forces in Rwanda
Being a member of the Canadian Armed Forces is not like any other job. The danger and threats that come along with the profession are difficult to understand for those who have not personally experienced them. A prime example of these special challenges was the situation faced by Canadians serving with United Nations (UN) peace missions to Rwanda from 1993 to 1996. At times, more than 400 Canadian soldiers would find themselves in the midst of some of the worst violence that could be imagined while taking part in international peace efforts to try to bring some stability to the embattled African nation.
Rwanda is a small, rural nation in central Africa. This densely-populated country has an area of about 26,000 square kilometres (making it about half the size of Nova Scotia) and a population of approximately eight million.
For centuries, two tribes have made up the vast majority of the country’s population: the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Tutsis, despite being in the minority, dominated Rwanda’s economy and politics for centuries. In 1960, the Hutu majority rose up and forced the Tutsi king and hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to flee the country in the ensuing upheaval.
Rwanda achieved independence in 1961 but the unrest continued. Some of the Tutsis who had fled the country formed rebel groups and repeatedly tried to make an armed comeback in Rwanda. This led to decades of renewed ethnic violence and tensions. In the early 1990s, these tensions flared dramatically. Violence became widespread and the situation in the country moved toward full-scale civil war.
The World Responds
In the face of this turmoil, Canada and other UN countries moved to try to end the bloodshed and restore order. The UN undertook peace missions to Rwanda from 1993 to 1996, the largest being the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in which Canada played a leading role. At different times during the mission, two Canadians would serve as the Commander of the UN mission. They were Major-General Roméo Dallaire and Major-General Guy Tousignant.
Even with the UN mission to Rwanda in place, the bad situation in the country turned into a nightmare in April 1994. The Hutus began to massacre hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The UN soldiers did what they could in this chaotic environment of widespread killing and mayhem, but they were too few in number and hamstrung by their limited mandate. In the end, they could not prevent the worst of the horrific violence. The Canadian and other UN forces did remain in the country for a time to try to help the country with some humanitarian efforts, mine clearing and refugee resettlement before leaving the devastated country in 1996.
Today, Rwanda still suffers from instability and outbreaks of violence as it struggles to overcome the legacies of its violent past. The civil war, genocide, and massive refugee upheavals still impact the country more than a decade later.
Facts and Figures
- The estimated number of people who died in the genocide in Rwanda ranges between 500,000 and one million people. Millions more were left homeless and displaced in the upheaval.
- In the time since the genocide, the world has come to realize the depth of the horrendous events in the country. In recognition of the 10th anniversary of the onset of the Rwandan genocide, April 7, 2004, was declared an International Day of Reflection.
Heroes and Bravery
Major Brent Beardsley, the Military Assistant to the Force Commander of the UN mission in Rwanda, was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for facing armed and hostile civilian mobs and rebel soldiers to rescue people who were being threatened by the crowds. He entered violent crowds to save a family from being swarmed, to rescue a doctor and nurse from being assaulted, to get a severely-wounded man to a hospital and to escort the UN Force Commander to headquarters.
Major-General Roméo Dallaire was awarded the Meritorious Service Cross for his efforts as head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in 1993-94. He worked bravely and tirelessly in conditions of great danger to negotiate cease-fires and reduce the unrest in the country. He tried to get greater help from the UN to try to prevent the genocide he feared was coming. In the torrent of murder that occurred, he was able to evacuate many foreigners from the country and save the lives of thousands of Rwandans through his actions.
Major-General Guy Tousignant earned the Meritorious Service Cross for his actions as Force Commander of the UN mission in Rwanda in 1994-95. He demonstrated leadership, courage and professionalism in delicate negotiations involving rival factions during a period of great unrest. Tousignant’s work with official Rwandan government representatives facilitated the safe return of thousands of refugees.
When Canadian Armed Forces members enter into a peace mission, they are going into a dangerous situation where the risk of harm is very real. About 130 Canadian personnel have died in the course of peace missions in foreign lands, including one who gave his life in Rwanda.
When people think of peacekeeping, they may not realize just how little peace there often is to keep. In Rwanda, Canadian Armed Forces members found themselves in the middle of a chaotic conflict zone where danger and bloodshed were everywhere.
Hostile fire, violent crowds and vehicle accidents all posed a risk to the Canadians in Rwanda, but there were other dangers too. The wounds of peacekeeping are not always the obvious physical ones of a war zone. Witnessing human brutality of the most horrific kind has a deep and lasting impact on those who see it. This has been one of the harshest legacies of Canada’s peace support mission in Rwanda. Some of the Veterans who served there have since suffered from a serious emotional disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Canadian Armed Forces Veterans proudly carried on the tradition set many years ago by the Veterans of Canada’s efforts in the First World War, Second World War and Korean War. Our country has participated in the majority of peace missions that the UN has undertaken over the years, making our nation an important part of the effort to keep the peace around the globe. Like the Veterans who fought in these conflicts, they have made significant achievements and heavy sacrifices in the protection of peace and freedom worldwide.
The Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan
The chain of events that would bring Canadian soldiers into the desolate and dangerous terrain of Afghanistan began on September 11, 2001. On that day, four airliners were hijacked in the skies over the eastern United States; two were deliberately crashed into the World Trade Center towers and one into the Pentagon, resulting in the death of nearly 3,000 people. These horrific attacks shocked and galvanized the United States and much of the world. Canada would soon play a role in the ensuing international efforts to battle terrorism and help bring democracy to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is a rugged country in Southwest Asia, located between Pakistan and Iran. This ancient, mountainous land is about the size of Saskatchewan and has a population of approximately 30 million people. The various ethnic groups and factions that have made the country home over the centuries have given Afghanistan a rich heritage and diversity, but have also helped make peace and stability difficult to achieve.
The civil war that broke out after the former Soviet Union withdrew from its military occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s would see the Taliban regime gain control of the country. This extreme fundamentalist regime severely limited civil rights and supported international terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda (the group which was behind the attacks in the United States). In the wake of September 11, the United States and the world took action through the United Nations (UN) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Canada and the World Responds
The first Canadian Armed Forces contribution to the campaign against terrorism in Southwest Asia came at sea. Beginning in October 2001, Canadian ships would see ongoing duty in the waters off the region, supporting and defending the international fleet operating there as well as locating and searching unknown boats looking for illegal activity.
The Aurora patrol aircraft and Hercules and Polaris transport planes of the Canadian Armed Forces Air Command would also be active in Afghanistan and the waters off Southwest Asia, filling important roles in marine surveillance, transporting supplies and personnel, and evacuating casualties. Canadian helicopters also provided important service in identifying merchant vessels and offering valuable transport support over the years.
Canadian soldiers soon traveled to Afghanistan as well. The first were commandos from the elite Joint Task Force 2 (JTF 2) in December 2001, followed by other Canadian soldiers in January 2002 who were initially based in Kandahar. There they joined American and British troops already fighting to topple the Taliban regime, eliminate terrorist operations and establish the basis for lasting peace in the troubled country.
With the eventual fall from power of the Taliban, attention turned to stabilizing the country and helping establish a new Afghan government. The UN authorized a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to take on this challenge. The initial Canadian contribution to the ISAF in the summer of 2003 consisted of more than 700 Canadian Armed Forces members stationed in Kabul, the country’s capital, with 200 more providing support from elsewhere in Southwest Asia. In Kabul, the Canadians patrolled the western sector of the city, helped operate the airport and assisted in rebuilding the Afghan National Army.
In 2005, the Canadian Armed Forces’ role evolved again when they began to shift back to the volatile Kandahar region. While the Taliban government had been toppled, the group remained a strong presence in some areas of the country. Indeed, Canada’s return to Kandahar coincided with a resurgence in Taliban activity and our soldiers quickly found themselves the targets of attack.
The numbers of Canadian soldiers soon swelled to approximately 2,300 to help deal with the enemy and support the Provincial Reconstruction Team operating there. Canadian tanks, artillery and infantry soldiers all took part in many ground operations in Kandahar, including large-scale offensives against massed Taliban forces. This chapter of Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan was the most perilous. Anytime Canadian soldiers left the relative safety of their main camps to go “outside the wire,” the danger was very real.
Canada’s combat role in the country ended in 2011 when the focus shifted to training Afghanistan’s army and police force and the last of our service members left the country in March 2014. But Canada’s efforts in the troubled country have been numerous. Reaching out in an attempt to build trust and win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan was an important goal. In addition to their military activities, Canadian Armed Forces members engaged in many humanitarian efforts like digging wells, rebuilding schools and distributing medical and relief supplies, both as part of their official mission and on a volunteer basis.
Facts and Figures
- More than 40,000 Canadian Armed Forces members served in the Afghanistan theatre of operations between 2001 and 2014. These brave men and women are eligible to receive the General Campaign Star-Southwest Asia.
- Afghanistan is a very poor country and its climate can be extreme. Summer temperatures of 50° C are common and huge dust storms can sweep across its arid deserts.
- Camp Nathan Smith was a base for Canadian operations in Kandahar for several years. It was named in honour of a soldier from Nova Scotia who was killed there in 2002.
- Operation Medusa was a September 2006 offensive in Kandahar province that involved more than 1,000 Canadian Armed Forces members, making it our country’s largest combat operation in more than 50 years. The heavy fighting in Operation Medusa tragically saw the loss of 12 Canadians, but the Taliban were pushed from the Panjwai district.
Heroes and Bravery
- A number of Canadians who served in Afghanistan have earned the Star of Military Valour, our country’s second-highest decoration for courage. The first was Sergeant Patrick Tower in August 2006 when he braved enemy fire to lead the extraction of a platoon that had come under heavy attack.
- Flight Lieutenant Chris Hasler, a Canadian serving with Britain’s Royal Air Force, received the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting helicopter resupply missions under fire in July 2006.
- Captain Nichola Goddard became the first female Canadian Armed Forces member to die in combat duty when the forward artillery observer was killed in a firefight on May 17, 2006.
Canada’s efforts in Afghanistan have made a difference, but this has come at a great cost. The threat of suicide attacks and roadside bombs was a constant risk. Improvised explosive devices (IEDs) caused the most Canadian casualties. There were also many other perils beyond ambushes and firefights with the enemy. Landmines and friendly fire incidents took the lives of our soldiers while vehicle accidents, illnesses and the psychological strain of serving in such a difficult environment also took a heavy and life-long toll. Sadly, 158 Canadian Armed Forces members died in the cause of peace and freedom in Afghanistan.